Launch of UK Government's Emergency Alerts system

In recent days, it’s been announced by the UK government that a new system which will “give the Government and emergency services the capability to send an alert directly to mobile phones when there is a risk to life” will be tested across the UK next month.

While most people seem indifferent about the system, the reception on Twitter has been less than favourable. Amongst other claims, the system is unnecessary Government intrusion into people’s lives, a way for the Government to track you and, above all, a global conspiracy (which, when two departments in the same hospital still have to fax each other, seems extraordinary unlikely).

I’ve been lucky enough to talk at length with someone who worked on the cross-Government team who’ve spent almost a decade building up in one form or another to this moment, so I want to document my thoughts so that… Well, you’re welcome to read them if you want?

Need

As Section 18 of Dr. Barbara Lane’s report to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry notes, a decision was made at 2:47am by the London Fire Brigade’s incident commander to advise those still within the building to evacuate rather than to stay put, as they had been previously advised.=

However, as she concludes: "Where there is a large fire in a high-rise block of flats, such as at Grenfell Tower, it is not possible to easily communicate changes in advice (e.g. from ‘stay put’ to ‘all out’)."

While it’s nigh-on impossible to quantify how many lives would have been saved had such a method of communication had been available (which would no doubt have been more effective the earlier such a decision was made), I would wager it would have saved at least one life.

Of course, fires in high-rise blocks of flats are far from the only hazard we face as a country. In recent years, we’ve seen, amongst many other things:

Oh, and, that pandemic thing which we’re all sick of. Don’t get me started.

Trust in Government

After Partygate, one of several scandals which awoke me to just how much some in Government have spent a solid three years slacking off and laughing at us, it’s fair to say that trust in the Government feels at an all-time low.

Quite honestly, I think that’s understandable. Certain members of the Government have shown that, while we sacrificed everything, they had no regard — not only to our sacrifices but to human life on the whole.

What I fail to understand is the suggestion that this is some sort of Government bid to take over our mobile phones, track us via them (as if they couldn’t already if they so wished!) and implement a “New World Order”, whatever one of those is.

Quite frankly, such suggestions are so utterly baffling that I really don’t know where to start when it comes to entertaining them.

Mechanism

Lots of people seem to think that the new system uses mobile phone numbers to send messages. Indeed, I’ve seen at least one person stating outright that the Government are breaking the Data Protection Act by doing this.

While I’m sure that, if mobile phone numbers were required for the system, the Government could argue that there’s a legitimate interest in warning people of a danger to their lives, mobile phone numbers aren’t used by the new system. Instead, it uses a technology called Cell Broadcasting.

When turned on and connected to the mobile network, your mobile phone regularly has a so-called “handshake” with the masts that provide mobile network coverage. This tells the mobile network that your mobile phone is still connected, and allows the mobile network to pass any new calls or text messages to your mobile phone.

If an alert is sent, the mobile network will include an extra piece of information in that handshake; namely, the alert. Mobile phones that support it will be able to decipher this extra piece of information and display it as they wish.

On most mobile phones, this will be in the form of a notification that requires acknowledgement to dismiss and a loud noise that will stop after ten seconds or when you acknowledge the alert.

On most devices, you’ll be able to disable most “channels” that alerts are sent on. In the UK, the two you can disable at launch (of three in total) will be “Extreme Alerts” and “Severe Alerts”. However, a channel named “Government Alerts” or “Presidential Level Alerts” cannot generally be disabled by users.

Governance

My big worry about the new system is governance. Some key questions for me are:

These issues are covered in a document known as the National Protocol. I’ve requested a copy from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat at the Cabinet Office, and I will publish it here if and when I receive it.

However, we do know that authorities who can send alerts will be able to send them on the “Government Alerts” channel, which cannot be disabled by users. This means that, in theory, you could disable all channels and still receive some alerts.

That said, time will tell on issues of governance.

Noise

Some have raised the argument that, if an alert is sent in the day, it might wake people who work shifts up. This is nonsense in my view, for several reasons:

Terrorism and the RUN, HIDE, TELL advice

On the topic of the noise, a question that has come up repeatedly — both in trials of the system and in recent days after the public launch — is how it impacts on the government advice to silence your mobile phone during a terrorist incident.

It’s a valid question and appears on the surface to pit becoming aware of a terrorist incident and staying safe during it against one-another. I therefore put the question to Frazer Rhodes, who worked on the core team developing the system.

He told me:

Channels can be configured individually to respect phones being on silent or, in this case, to make no sound at all but to use a vibration instead. A common example is system test messages (except the one to be sent on 23 April, which will be sent as a real alert) which respect phones being on silent.

Given that no countries have actually implemented this, it begs the question as to whether there’s a user need. I’m open minded on that but, as we know from previous terrorist incidents, they’re rarely quiet affairs.